Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2024: Second Stage

 

5:25 pm

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)

I welcome the fact that the Bill is before the House. It is timely and absolutely necessary. I acknowledge the work done by the students' unions in raising this issue and by so many students impacted by this who have come forward. I am conscious this is the last week before the Dáil goes into recess and I have two concerns as a result. One concern is that this is something we should have had before the Dáil a number of months ago. I first raised this in February. Unfortunately, people have already signed contracts and will not be able to avail of this. I am also concerned that the timeline for passing the legislation is quite tight. I will be interested to hear whether the Minister can advise when he thinks the President will be in a position to sign the Bill into law.

Especially for those people who might be at a point when they are looking at signing contracts, I am concerned that providers will put pressure on them to sign the contract before the Bill comes into law. We do not want to have people put under increasing pressure. The Bill is scheduled to go through all Stages in the Seanad this week also. I hope it will have become law before the majority of students have accepted their offers for accommodation for the coming academic year. I understand the difficulty in making retrospective a new law such as this when we are dealing with contractual issues. However, it is essential that as many students as possible can forego 51-week lease requirements starting in September.

The Minister is aware this is an issue I have been raising consistently for the past six months because it seemed so unfair when it had arisen so often. When we look at the work done on this by students, students' unions and many others, we can see the impact of this activism has paid off in terms of having the Bill coming before us. Some of the work I have done on identifying the vulture-fund-owned student accommodation providers operating here has been important, including calculation of the average rents they have been charging students and demonstrating where 51-week lease requirements were in place. This helped to place the issue in the public domain and debate and, as a consequence, put it on the legislative agenda. I am very happy to see the Government is moving on this but I would like to have seen it happen in February.

We know that rents charged by these vulture-fund-owned student accommodation providers are astronomical, even despite the 51-week lease requirements. I will give some examples from my county of Galway. I am sure other TDs will be able to speak to examples in their own counties. The cheapest single occupancy room in the Westwood complex in Galway, which is owned by the asset manager GSA, is €8,502 for a 39-week lease but if a 51-week lease requirement can be imposed it would increase the rent to €11,118.

Another provider, Hubble Student Living, which is owned by the Swedish private equity group EQT, tried to increase rents by 30% this year - that did not relate to the increase in the duration of the leases - until it created such a public backlash that it was forced to back down. The public understands that this is not the way to deliver student accommodation.

Another proposed development on the Coolough Road in Galway has caused much consternation. Few people are in any way in favour of it. Planning permission was first granted for 248 single bedrooms divided into two separate blocks, comprising 37 clusters up to four storeys in height. Despite multiple objections, permission was granted. Now, however, the developer wants to increase the development to 257 beds by adding another level bringing the buildings to five storeys, with an additional plant room on the roof. We know what is likely to arise from this: extortionate rent for students and parents. Local people are enraged about this and about the fact that their concerns and queries were completely ignored, while an investment fund makes fantastic returns.

My feelings on the vulture fund model of student housing delivery have been set out on multiple occasions in this House. It is not a model that has affordability at its heart. It does not have affordability as a feature at all. Why would it? If you want to turn student accommodation into an asset for investment funds, you build into it an entirely different financial logic, one based on maximising rental yields and minimising tax payment. It will be based on increasing distributions to shareholders, interest payments, increasing asset values through the creation of artificial scarcity and so on. The use of 51-week leases by these investment funds was just another effort to increase rental yields.

The fact that investment funds have approximately the same number of student beds as our universities highlights the major imbalance that is being created. I said in February that if this issue was not tackled head-on, it would prove to be the thin edge of the wedge. In other words, this practice would creep into non-vulture-fund-owned student accommodation. That is exactly what we witnessed recently in the now notorious Rhebogue complex of the University of Limerick where 51-week leases are now being sought. I hope the swift passing of this legislation will put an end to this practice once and for all. However, we need to recognise that stamping out one bad practice in a bad delivery model does not change the model itself. Only Government can do so.

If we do not make student accommodation affordable, we are saying one of two things to students and families. Either parents will have to fork out for major additional costs for their children who live out of home for college - this means we have a situation that is much like childcare, where parents are required to pay the equivalent of a second mortgage when their children go to college - or the students will be forced to take on almost full-time hours of work to cover the cost of keeping a roof over their heads. They will be forced to miss classes and tutorials due to work commitments. Their mental health will suffer due to an awful work-life-study balance. Then when they qualify, they think about heading to Australia or wherever because they do not feel listened to.

The way this legislation is being dealt with shows how well this place can operate when we all try to get to the end of one thing and have one goal in mind. I hope the Minister recognises that by waiving pre-legislative scrutiny, we have tried to facilitate efforts to address the issue of 51-week leases. I acknowledge that the Minister is willing to do this. As I said to other Ministers I have dealt with on legislative matters, good legislation is good legislation, no matter who brings it before the Dáil. Regardless of the motivation behind it or how it came to pass, good legislation is good legislation. Considering that my party and I were willing facilitate this Bill on the basis that it could help students, it would be good to try to do this going forward. I brought forward a Bill on student digs which the Government did not oppose and it is now proceeding to Committee Stage. Although it is likely to go to the housing committee rather than the education committee, I hope that in the spirit of working together to improve the housing crisis for students, the Minister might give a commitment to work together to see that Bill become law as quickly as possible, in the same manner as we are doing with the Minister's Bill. The sooner both Bills are enacted, the sooner we can begin to tackle the student housing crisis and look at making sure students' lives are put first in student accommodation.

Feicimid timpeall na tíre go bhfuil go leor lóistín ag na investment funds seo do mhic léinn tríú leibhéal. Mar gheall go bhfuil daoine ag brath ar an gcineál lóistín sin, tá go leor airgid i gceist. Tá na mílte euro i gceist. Tá sé feicthe agam in mo chontae féin, i nGaillimh, go bhfuil €8,000 nó €11,000 á lorg ag roinnt acu in aghaidh na bliana. Tá sé sin i bhfad ró-chostasach. Tá sé fíormhaith go bhfuil an Bille seo ag dul tríd an Dáil agus go gciallaíonn sé sin go mbeidh stop leis an gcraic seo de mhic léinn ag fanacht agus ag íoc ar feadh 51 seachtain, nuair nach bhfuil siad ar an ollscoil chomh fada le sin. Ach caithfimid breathnú ar an lóistín seo in iomláine. Caithfimid cinntiú go bhfuil mo Bhille in ann dul tríd an Dáil chomh tapaigh agus atá an Bille seo agus go bhfuilmid ag cur infheistíocht cuí isteach i lóistín atá ag na hollscoileanna atá ar phraghas réasúnta agus nach bhfuilmid ag braith ar na investment funds seo, na creach-chistí seo atá ag teacht isteach agus díreach atá i ndáiríre ag lorg brabús seachas go mbeadh na mic léinn mar chroí lár ar an gceist.

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